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Scottish information bill welcomed – with reservations

The Scottish Executive’s draft freedom of information bill was welcomed by campaigners today who said in that many areas it would make it difficult for Scottish authorities to act with unjustified secrecy. However, they said that some of the bill’s exemptions were still too widely drawn, and expressed concern that the First Minister could veto disclosure in certain cases and that the costs of access could be unacceptably high.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland (CFOIinS) said:

“The ‘substantial prejudice’ test which applies to many, though not all, exemptions in the draft bill is an important step forward and a tougher test for authorities to meet than the simple ‘prejudice’ test in the UK Act. It will require Scottish authorities to operate more openly than similar bodies elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish Information Commissioner, who will enforce the Act, will have greater powers than the Commissioner under the UK Act. However, in certain cases the First Minister would still be able to veto the Commissioner’s decisions – and we are opposed in principle to any veto. We are also opposed to the use of class-based exemptions, which allow information to be withheld even if disclosure would not cause harm.”

The CFOIinS expressed particular concern at:

• The exemptions for confidential information, which would allow information supplied to Scottish authorities by the EU or other international bodies to be withheld or allow lobbyists to operate in secrecy by agreeing with authorities that their information was to be kept confidential [sections 31 and 35]

• The exemption for information whose disclosure is prohibited by other existing – or future – laws [section 25]. The CFOIinS said the FOI Act should take priority over these restrictions.

• The exemption for information relating to the formulation of government policy, which was drafted too broadly [section 28]

• The fact that certain decisions of the independent Information Commissioner may be vetoed by the First Minister [section 51]

• The possibility of a requester being charged up to £400 for complex requests [paragraph 25]. (Under the draft bill, if the cost of locating the information does not exceed £100 the requester will not be charged. But if the cost is more, the requester may have to pay the extra amount – though authorities will not have to give access at all if the cost exceeds £500. This would allow higher charges under the Scottish FOI Bill than under the UK law.)

Note: The draft Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill is published today (March 1) for consultation. The UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 reached the statute book in November 2000 but will not begin to come into force until May-June 2002.

Further information is available from the CFOIinS on 0141 554 5161